Widely regarded as one of America’s finest essayists, Elwyn Brooks White is often credited with restoring the informal essay to a place of respect. While he also wrote children’s books, poetry, editorials, a famous style manual, and some well-received short fiction, White’s position in American literature is secured by the charming personal essays he published in the New Yorker and Harper’s magazine from the 1920s through the 1960s. In collections of essays such as One Man’s Meat (1942), The Second Tree from the Corner (1954), The Points of My Compass (1962), and Essays of E.B.White (1977), White demonstrates what many critics consider America’s most engaging 20th-century essay style in the personal or Montaignean tradition.
Among critics, White is frequently identified as this century’s most exemplary personal essayist. He is most frequently commended for the music and architecture of his paragraphs, the subtle rhythm and pace of his sentences, and the elegant yet colloquial diction of his comfortable yet intense essaying voice. The terms commonly used to describe White’s essay persona are “modest,” “sincere,” “gentle,” and “precise.” His highly esteemed prose style makes him a great favorite among anthologizers of essay texts for college English composition courses. Among his most frequently anthologized essays are ‘The Ring of Time” (1956), “Death of a Pig” (1948), “Once More to the Lake” (1941), and his tribute to Thoreau, “A Slight Sound at Evening” (1954).
While some find fault with his tendency to adopt the voice of the entertainer who, takes a homey and self-deprecating stance in addressing commonplace subjects, most reviewers find White to be a serious, even passionate advocate of social causes ranging from civil rights to ecology. Warren Beck and Eudora Welty, among others, defend White as a strong individualist, an intellectually and morally rigorous writer who does not trivialize or avoid dark and divisive issues.
White began writing poetry and short fiction as a boy in Mount Vernon, New York, winning three literary prizes and being published in St. Nicholas Magazine before his 15th year. From 1917 to 1921 he studied at Cornell University, where he developed his journalistic skills as editor of the Cornell Daily Sun. White earned a degree in English, studying literature and writing, most notably under the direction of Professor Will Strunk, whose “little book” of precepts about writing White would, in 1959, revise and expand into The Elements of Style. This manual has achieved enormous popularity for its succinct and bold advice for writers, being continuously in print over three decades, used in college courses and as a stylistic bible by a generation of freelance writers.
After leaving Cornell, White embarked on brief, unrewarding careers as a newspaper reporter for United Press syndicate and the Seattle Times. He would later write several engaging essays about this “unrooted period” of his life, most notably “Years of Wonder” (1961), dealing with his naive wandering in Alaska, and “Farewell, My Lovely” (1936), a celebration of the eccentricities of the Model T Ford which White and a friend drove across the continent the year after graduation.
Returning to New York City in 1923, White took a job for which he was
temperamentally ill-suited, working for an advertising agency while submitting humorous sketches and poetry to newspapers. Fortuitously for White, just at the time he determined to make his living as a writer of essays and short humor pieces, a new magazine appeared under the editorship of Harold Ross and his assistant, Katherine Sergeant Angell.
Impressed with several light sketches or “casuals” which White submitted, Ross offered White a job as staff writer for the New Yorker. White, who would marry Katherine upon her divorce in 1929, established a literary home for himself at the New Yorker, making his mark on that urbane and witty magazine while writing for it in several capacities for most of the next 50 years.
At the New Yorker White resisted the discipline of the traditional desk job, cherishing his personal freedom and avoiding normal office hours while cultivating many literary friendships. Among the writers with whom White and his wife developed social and professional relationships at the New Yorker were Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and Stephen Leacock. Most notably, White collaborated with his sometime office mate James Thurber, whose cartooning talents were discovered by
White as he retrieved doodles and scribblings from the wastebasket they shared. White collaborated with Thurber on Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a parody on contemporary sex advice books. Together White and Thurber established the clever, bemused editorial tone for which the New Yorker is known. They also pioneered such magazine subgenres as “Notes and Comments” and the “newsbreak,” filling in small portions of white space between the magazine’s articles with brief, logically and typographically flawed excerpts from other publications, to which White and Thurber would add comic oneliners. White published two collections of these: Ho-Hum: Newsbreaks from the New Yorker (1931) and Another Ho-Hum (1932).
At various times through the 1930s, White wrote essays, notes and comments, light verse, cartoon captions, and editorial columns for the New Yorker, as well as short comic sketches which he called “preposterous parables.” A collection of sketches was published in 1938 under the title Quo Vadimus? Ever self-deprecating and irregular in his work habits, White referred to his position at the Neiv Yorker as that of “office boy deluxe.”
When offered the editorship of the competing Saturday Review in 1936, he declined the position.
Although he had been making his living as a magazine prose writer, White felt a strong attraction to poetry. Most of his poetic output is, however, considered by critics to be light verse. He published his first volume of poems, The Lady Is Cold, in 1929, and followed it with another volume, The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems, in 1938.
Following his poetic muse and suffering from a nervous condition, White resigned from his job at the New Yorker in 1937 to devote himself to a long, serious, autobiographical poem which never materialized. White would later use some material from this failed poem in his essay “Zoo Revisited” (1954).
Having moved from New York to a saltwater farm in Maine, White lived as an amateur farmer while writing a monthly column for Harper’s. These collected essays, featuring White’s rural experiences, were published in 1942. as One Man’s Meat. Critics hailed this as White’s best book to date, characterizing him as a 20th-century approximation of Montaigne and Thoreau. Later that year, Ross coaxed White back into working for the New Yorker, asking him to focus on patriotic wartime themes. Sent to cover the San Francisco Conference that led to the foundation of the United Nations, White became an enthusiastic editorial supporter of postwar internationalism, publishing an idealistic collection of essays devoted to world government under the title The Wild Flag (1946).
Throughout White’s career, he celebrated two seemingly contradictory themes: human interdependence and an almost Thoreauvian commitment to individualism. His is a lyrical prose voice, both moderate and insistent, with a clearly moral foundation in American principles of liberty and justice. The personal ethics which pervade the essays become evident in the published Letters of E.B.White (1976). These letters reveal, among other telling autobiographical details, that White refused a guaranteed offer of $20,000 from the Book of the Month Club for The Second Tree from the Corner because he could not tolerate a six months’ delay in publication of what he considered to be timely and topical essays.
White, sometimes dismissed as a writer of children’s books (including the classics Stuart Little  and Charlotte’s Web ), magazine humor pieces, and unprepossessing familiar essays, has earned a wide and affectionate following.
Employing such comic devices as parody, colloquial dialogue, personification of animals, and understatement, White built an enduring reputation as a serious and humane essayist who succeeded with humor and good grace.
Elwyn Brooks White. Born 11 July 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. Studied at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (editor, Cornell Daily Sun, 1920–21), 1917–21, A.B., 1921. Private in the U.S. army, 1918. Reporter, Seattle Times, 1922–23; advertising copywriter, Frank Seaman Inc. and Newmark Inc., New York, 1914–25; contributing editor, New Yorker, 1926–37 and from 1943. Married Katharine Sergeant Angell, 1929 (died, 1977): one son and two stepchildren. Columnist of “One Man’s Meat,” Harper’s,
1938–43. Awards: several, including Page One Award for Literature, for The Second Tree from the Corner, 1954; American Academy Gold Medal, for essays, 1960; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963; American Library Association Wilder Award, for children’s book, 1970; National Medal for Literature, 1971; Pulitzer Special Citation, 1978; honorary degrees from seven American colleges and universities. Member, American Academy. Died in North Brooklin, Maine, 1 October 1985.
Essays and Related Prose
Every Day Is Saturday, 1934
Quo Vadimus? or, The Case for the Bicycle (sketches), 1938
One Man’s Meat, 1942
World Government and Peace: Selected Notes and Comment 1943–1945, 1945
The Wild Flag: Editorials from the New Yorker on Federal World Government and Other Matters, 1946
Here Is New York, 1949
The Second Tree from the Corner (includes poetry), 1954
The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South, 1962,
An E.B.White Reader, edited by William W.Watt and Robert W. Bradford, 1966
Essays of E.B.White, 1977
Writings from the New Yorker, 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale, 1990
Other writings: the satire Is Sex Necessary?, with James Thurber (1929), the handbook of style The Elements of Style, with William Strunk, Jr. (1959), three novels for children (Stuart Little, 1945; Charlotte’s Web, 1952; The Trumpet of the Swan, 1970), two collections of poetry, and correspondence (collected in Letters of E. B.White, edited by Dorothy Lubrano Guth, 1976).
Anderson, A.J., E.B.White: A Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1978
Hall, Katherine R., E.B.White: A Bibliographic Catalogue of Printed Materials in the Department of Rare Books, Cornell University Library, New York: Garland, 1979
Beck, Warren, “E.B.White,” College English 7 (April 1946): 367–73
Dennis, Nigel, “Smilin’ Through,” New York Review of Books, 27 October 1977:42–43
Elledge, Scott, E.B.White: A Biography, New York: Norton, 1984
Epstein, Joseph, “E.B.White, Dark and Lite,” Commentary 81 (April 1986):48–56
Fuller, J.W., Prose Style in the Essays of E.B.White (dissertation), Seattle: University of Washington, 1959
Grant, Thomas, “The Sparrow on the Ledge: E.B.White in New York,” Studies in American Hutnor 3 (Spring 1984):23–33
Haskell, Dale E., The Rhetoric of the Familiar Essay: E.B.White and Personal Discourse (dissertation), Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1983
Heldreth, Leonard G., “The Pattern of Life Indelible’: E.B.White’s ‘Once More to the Lake’,” CEA Critic 45 (November 1985): 31–34
Howarth, William, “E.B.White at the New Yorker,” Sewanee Review 93 (Fall 1985):574– 83
Platizky, Roger S., “‘Once More to the Lake’: A Mythic Interpretation,” College Literature 15 (Spring 1988):171–79
Plimpton, George, and Frank H.Crowther, “The Art of the Essay I: E.B.White,” Paris Review 48 (Fall 1969):65–88
Quigley, Michael, “The Germ of Common Cause”: History, Rhetoric, and Ideology in the Essays of E.B.White (dissertation), Eugene: University of Oregon, 1989
Root, Robert L., Jr., editor, Critical Essays on E.B.White, New York: Hall, and Oxford: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994
Sampson, Edward, E.B.White, New York: Twayne, 1974
Schott, Webster, “E.B.White Forever,” New Republic, 24 November 1962:23–24
Smith, Kenneth Alan, Contesting Discourses in tbe Essays of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and E.B.White (dissertation), lowa City: University of lowa, 1993
Tanner, Stephen L, “E.B.White and the Theory of Humor,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 2 (1989): 43–53
Thurber, James. “E.B.W.,” Saturday Review of Literature, 15 October 1938:1+
Updike, John, “Remarks on the Occasion of E.B.White Receiving the 1971 National Medal for Literature,” in his Picked-Up Pieces, New York: Knopf, 1975; London: Deutsch, 1976: 434–47
Weales, Gerald, “The Designs of E.B.White,” New York Times Book Review, 24 May 1970:2+
Welty, Eudora, “Dateless Virtues,” New York Times Book Review, 25 September 1977:43+
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